Wednesday, October 30, 2019
I find myself writing this editor's note—my first one—and I am reminded that I have accomplished something I had decided I wanted to do since my days as a barely 5-foot-tall seventh grader in my "career discovery" class: I became an editor.
I had grown up with a love for reading, and I knew I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to earn a living by reading. To that end, I set off on a journey to enter the publishing sphere as a professional editor.
I have always been ambitious and goal-driven. I suppose that quality is why the Sorting Hat decided that I was a Slytherin, a revelation that initially perturbed me, although I now wear my green crest with pride. Anyhow, sidebar aside, I am the type who goes all in to everything I do, for better or worse. Thus, when I decided I wanted to become an editor, I truly knew I was prepared to pursue this path.
Some teachers encouraged me to pursue other fields instead, telling me I would make a phenomenal engineer or chemist. And perhaps I would have. But I had assessed what I wanted for my life, and I wanted to be a master wordsmith. I wanted to be an editor.
What can I say—I'm a planner. Even in elementary school, I would give my parents a Christmas wishlist in July in the form of a Word document, color-coded by priority and listing the items by category, along with their respective prices and links my parents could use to find them online. I like to be prepared, sometimes to a fault. Fortunately, I have an amazing girlfriend who helps rein me in and helps me live in the present now and then as well.
As future-oriented as I am, I understood early on that I needed to work really hard in school to help me achieve my goal. Throughout high school, I would take my textbooks home and study between three and four hours a day. My efforts paid off that one day during the spring semester of my senior year when my mother called and hurriedly asked, "Are you driving?"
It was a few minutes before 4 p.m. I had just gotten out of school and had stopped for a quick snack. Setting my flavor-blasted Goldfish in the passenger seat, I answered the phone. Once I verified that I would not swerve at whatever news she slung my way, she excitedly said, "You got it!" I had earned a full academic scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi.
I enrolled at USM during the fall 2014 semester as an English major (oh yes, as I imagine other English majors can relate, I found myself teased a lot by my STEM-based friends for being selecting such a major, but I persevered). I knew that the job outlook for editors was low, so I investigated to learn what I could do to give myself an edge. I saw that another of the top three degrees editor's typically possessed included happened to be public relations, so I added PR as a second major.
I first dipped my toes into the editorial waters during my junior year at USM when I became an editorial intern for the University Press of Mississippi here in Jackson. At the time, I drove a white 2001 Chevrolet Blazer. At least, I say I drove it. In actuality, it had been "in the shop" since a week before I started college, meaning I had limited mobility. Luckily, my father lent me his truck and used his motorcycle on a regular basis so that I could drive from Hattiesburg to Jackson twice a week for the (unpaid) internship.
The experience was invaluable. I had amazing coworkers, and my semester helping Emily, Lisa and the others reaffirmed that I wanted to pursue an editorial career. The following semester, I took a reporting class. At USM, public relations is part of what was then called the School of Mass Communication and Journalism, so my professors taught me journalistic skills—and I am so grateful they did. I then served as features editor, news editor and later copyeditor with USM's student-led newspaper, The Student Printz.
My three semesters with TSP solidified my grounding in AP Style. So when Editor-in-chief Donna Ladd asked me in my interview for the position of editorial assistant with the Jackson Free Press whether or not I was familiar with AP Style, I emphatically answered, "Yes!"
She sat in a chair adjacent to my own while then-Managing Editor Amber Helsel and Events Editor Micah Smith manned the nearby couch. Micah wore a nerdy T-shirt, and he and I talked about comic books in the moments before the others joined us for the interview, which eased any anxiety I may have had. Throughout the interview, I found myself fully believing that the JFP would be a great fit for me—I just had to hope that I was a good fit for the JFP.
The next day, while I was playing card games with my Laurel-based friend group, I checked my email to see that Amber had sent me a congratulatory message. I had landed the job. I was ecstatic. I arranged to crash on a friend's couch because I did not have a place to stay in Jackson (thanks, Mason), and I began work at JFP. As he prepared for his departure from JFP the same week I started, Micah showed me the ropes of his role as events editor.
From there, Amber took me under her wing. Through her feedback on my editing, I slowly began to learn that editing is not all about what is technically correct. Up to then, I had edited with the frame of mind that being up-to-code with AP Style made a story A-OK. However, Amber and Donna taught me to look at stories from other angles, and my edits became more substantive. Amber not only taught me more about the journalistic field, she made me feel comfortable at the workplace.
She smiled. She encouraged me. She made sure I took breaks. We shared stories and laughed together. She served as my professional lifeline and was more instrumental to how far I have come as an editor than she may even realize. Then, two months and a lifetime ago, Amber announced that she was leaving JFP to pursue a career in a new field, one in which I know she is going to do extremely well. But the news hit me in a way I did not expect. I had not worked with Amber as long as my coworkers. She had been here for six years after all. But she ultimately had come to mean so much to me as a friend and colleague.
She was there offering hand sanitizer in the parking garage when I discovered I had a flat and Todd Stauffer was helping me remove my busted tire, and she picked me up and drove me to work the next morning. I knew I could rely on her. But then I suddenly learned that I couldn't for much longer, at least not in the office.
In the weeks after her announcement, Amber infused my brain with as much of her acquired wisdom as she possibly could as she prepared me with the skills and knowledge needed to fulfill the duties she performed as managing editor. She even wrote a compendium for me to use as a reference tool, although I still find myself processing all of its contents.
The staff celebrated Amber's years of service at JFP with cake, Champagne and lots of fried cheese from Hal & Mal's. The sendoff was bittersweet, and reading Amber's farewell editor's note was even more so. I miss her. Nevertheless, stepping into my new role of deputy editor has been a transformative experience for me. I continue to learn my own capabilities, and my own limits. I now have my own team at the features desk in editorial assistant Azia Wiggins and social media assistant Robin Johnson. I am still learning how to delegate, but both of these incredible women have been receptive and eager to contribute—and I thank them for that.
This issue marks the third since Amber left, and while I have now taken a number of steps in her shoes, I find myself hoping I can live up to the mantle she has passed onto me. In the story of my life and my career, Amber Helsel has a place in it, as one of my most significant mentors. As humble as she is, I can imagine her reading this editor's note right now and pondering how impactful she may have been, but I am here now telling her and anyone else who may be reading that I shall never forget the lessons she has bestowed upon me in the nine months we were able to work together.
Now, I have a new goal: I want to make Amber proud and prove to myself that she and Donna chose to put me in this new position for a reason—and I plan to live up to it.
Email story ideas to [email protected].